Jim Hendren Credit: (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Last week, Arkansas attorney Timothy Steadman sued Hendren Plastics for profiting off “a pervasive scheme of slavery.”

Now the plastics company, owned by Arkansas State Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, is suing Steadman for defamation.

The lawsuits come after an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that men and women at drug rehabilitation centers are being sent to work at private companies for free under the threat of prison.

Former participants are currently suing the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program and Hendren Plastics in two separate class-action lawsuits. In addition to Steadman’s suit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma alleges human trafficking and violations of federal and state labor laws.

Hendren Plastics’ defamation suit against Steadman says that allegations of slavery will negatively affect the company’s reputation and business.

“Because of the salacious allegations of slavery, the Lawsuit generated considerable publicity and news coverage,” the suit says. Hendren Plastics paid the rehab for the labor, according to the suit, so the implication that the company “was profiting from slave labor is categorically false.”

Hendren says it paid the rehab $9.25 an hour for each worker, as much as it paid its own entry-level employees, according to the suit. Hendren said this week that his company would stop using the rehab center, known as DARP.

At DARP, defendants worked for free under threat of prison. If they got hurt on the job, workers said they often were kicked out and sent to prison.

Hendren has widely touted his role as a business owner and job creator in his political campaigns. Participants told Reveal that about 20 workers from DARP worked at Hendren’s company at any given time. In 2011, the company employed about 50 workers, according to a news report.

Hendren Plastics is being represented by Hendren’s cousin Tim Hutchinson, a former state representative. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is their uncle.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @amyjharris and @shoeshine.

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Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.